Majority of U.S. Public Supports High-Skilled Immigration But U.S. trails other economically advanced nations in share of immigrants with high skills

Like publics in other economically advanced countries with a high number and share of immigrants, a majority of Americans support encouraging the immigration of high-skilled people into the United States, according to a new survey of 12 countries by Pew Research Center in spring 2018.1

Roughly eight-in-ten U.S. adults (78%) support encouraging highly skilled people to immigrate and work in the U.S., a percentage that roughly matches or is exceeded by Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and Australia.

Smaller majorities share this positive view of high-skilled immigration in France, Spain and the Netherlands. Among the countries analyzed, only in Israel (42%) and Italy (35%) do fewer than half back high-skilled immigration.

Across the 12 countries, younger adults, more highly educated adults and adults with higher incomes tend to be more supportive of encouraging highly skilled people to immigrate to their countries – findings that are generally in line with other surveys on attitudes toward immigrants and immigration. (See Appendix B for demographic breakdowns.)

The Pew Research Center survey also reveals that even among people who would like to see overall immigration reduced, half or more in all but the Netherlands, Israel and Italy support encouraging high-skilled immigration.

More than a third of U.S. immigrants are highly educated, ranking the country in middle of similar advanced economies with high immigration

Among surveyed countries, in only two – Canada and Australia – do highly educated immigrants make up the majority of the foreign-born population, based on analysis of 2015 government censuses and labor force surveys.2

In the U.S., just over a third (36%) of immigrants ages 25 and older are college educated, ahead of Spain, Netherlands, France, Germany, Greece and Italy among the 12 countries, but behind the UK, Israel and Sweden.

Moving beyond surveyed countries, the share of the U.S. immigrant population with a college degree still ranks among the middle of 20 economically advanced countries that have 500,000 or more immigrants and populations that are about 10% or more foreign born (see Appendix B for more educational data by country).

It’s important to note that while the share of college-educated immigrants in the U.S. trails those of some other countries, the U.S. is home to the largest number of college-educated immigrants in the world. As of 2015, the U.S. had some 14.7 million immigrants ages 25 and older with a postsecondary diploma or college degree. This is more than three times the number in Canada (4.4 million) and about four times as many as the UK (3.4 million). Other countries with high numbers of college-educated immigrants include Australia (3.0 million), Germany (2.0 million) and France (1.8 million).

Despite trailing some other economically advanced countries, the U.S. immigrant population is better educated than ever, due in part to increased schooling in origin countries and a boost in high-skilled workers arriving from Asia and Africa.

Depending on country or region of origin, U.S. immigrant groups vary in their overall education levels. In 2015, fewer than one-in-ten (9%) Mexican immigrants ages 25 and older – the largest origin immigrant group in the U.S. – are college-educated. By contrast, more than half of immigrants from China (52%) and India (80%), the next two largest origin groups in the U.S., have a postsecondary education. Meanwhile, many sub-Saharan African immigrants in the U.S. are highly educated, often exceeding average education levels in the U.S.

How highly educated immigrants enter and stay in the U.S.

There are several ways for highly educated immigrants to enter the United States. Each year, thousands of highly educated foreigners temporarily work in the U.S. under the federal government’s Optional Practical Training (OPT) program and H-1B visa programs, the two largest sources of temporary, highly educated immigrant workers. Other highly educated immigrants enter or stay in the U.S. as lawful permanent residents, or immigrants with “green cards” (some of whom entered through family reunification visas).

There were nearly 1.5 million foreign graduates of U.S. colleges and universities who obtained authorization to remain and work in the U.S. through the Optional Practical Training between 2004 and 2016. The OPT program was developed to allow foreign students studying in the U.S. under student, or F-1, visas to gain practical work experience after graduating from a U.S. college or university. There are no limits on the number of foreign student graduates that can participate in the program. OPT participants can work between 12 and 36 months after graduation, depending on whether they have a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) degree.

Between 2004 and 2016, there were about 1.5 million initial approvals in the H-1B visa program, the primary way that companies in the U.S. hire highly educated foreign workers, with most entering the U.S. from abroad. These are temporary visas that are awarded to employers on a first-come, first-served basis, with applications accepted each year beginning in April. H-1B visas are issued for up to six years and are renewable if the H-1B visa holder has a pending permanent residency (green card) application filed.

The U.S. government granted more than 14 million green cards from fiscal years 2004 to 2016 for lawful permanent residence based on a complex system of admission categories and numerical quotas. The majority (66% in fiscal 2017) went to immigrants who are sponsored by family members – either immediate family or other relatives of U.S. citizens – and a further 13% went to refugees or asylum seekers. There is no educational requirement for people applying as a family member of a U.S. citizen or coming into the country as a refugee or asylum seeker. Employment-related categories (including those with employment-based green cards, workers’ family members and those previously sponsored under the H-1B visa program) accounted for 12% of 2017 issued green cards. There is a limit on the number of family-sponsored and employment-based green cards that can be issued to immigrants from any one country in a fiscal year (currently set at no more than 7%). This has contributed to long wait times for certain nationalities, such as Indians or Mexicans, with these potential immigrants waiting for up to 10 years or more for their green cards, depending on the admission category.

Subscribe to our Newsletter